Church Planting Movements and the Crisis of Power in the SBC, Pt. 3.

During the Parks years, the Foreign Mission Board began utilizing a subsidiary organization known as Cooperative Services International (CSI) to access countries where traditional missionary platforms were unwelcome. Essentially a humanitarian enterprise on the surface, CSI missionaries would enter “hostile” areas of the world with a “platform” of non-proselytization such as well-digging, abstinence education, civil service consultation, English-tutoring, and the like. Once inside the country for a legitimate and governmentally authorized purpose, Southern Baptist missionaries would seek to evangelize the lost and plant churches. When Rankin launched “New Directions” in 1997, key components of CSI were implemented in every region of the Foreign Mission Board’s structure, and CSI was phased out as a stand-alone subsidiary of the mission agency. Top regional leadership changes were made to facilitate the new direction, and new ways of measuring missionary success were inaugurated.(8) In September of the same year, trustees unanimously implemented the final stage of “New Directions,” and approved the new leadership structure of the mission board, which had been renamed the International Mission Board in a larger denominational reorganization earlier that June. The new strategy would focus on people groups rather than geopolitical boundaries for determining where missionary personnel were most needed, and missionary deployments would increase to areas of the world like the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and East and Southeast Asia.(9) Missionary applications poured in, Lottie Moon offering totals skyrocketed, and the board struggled to catch up with the surge in personnel and the needs for housing, training, and deploying an unprecedented number of missionary candidates.

Three years after the implementation of New Directions, the International Mission Board broke ground on a $23 million dollar building expansion to train and equip the swelling numbers of candidates for foreign mission service. The missionary training was undergoing a change as well, and a new focus on fostering church planting movements was streamlined into the curriculum. An additional $13 million was spent on renovating the agency headquarters in Richmond, an unprecedented and allegedly unauthorized amount that threatened trustee support for Rankin and his leadership team.(10) Retired Texas Appeals Court Judge Paul Pressler, who along with fellow Texan Paige Patterson engineered the denominational takeover, was persistent in pushing a review of Rankin’s management of the renovation, though the trustee subcommittee’s review never turned up any evidence that unauthorized expenditures had occurred. Rankin survived the attacks, though some of his detractors continue to whisper about the charges of financial mismanagement.(11) That same year, concerns that the new church planting strategies were not sufficiently Baptist in character began to emerge.

At their July meeting in 2000, IMB trustees heard reports from regional leaders that the word “Baptist” was not employed overseas when its usage would invite governmental reprisal or connote narrow ethnic identification. In other contexts, the trustees were told, Baptist denominations had a particularly “liberal” character inconsistent with Southern Baptist doctrinal commitments. To use “Baptist” in such contexts could misrepresent the conservative theology of Southern Baptists. In response, trustees authorized the continued emphasis on church planting movements so long as models for discipling new converts were regularly evaluated to assure doctrinal uniformity to the convention’s articles of faith.(12) The same year, Southern Baptists had amended those articles of faith, known as the Baptist Faith & Message, to narrow any ecclesiological latitude by proscribing women, in particular, from pastoral leadership.(13) In January of 2001, the IMB trustees adopted the new statement of faith as the “standard for carrying out the [mission board’s] program ministries” For many years Southern Baptists had required their missionaries to state whether or not they were in agreement with the Baptist Faith & Message. New missionaries would be asked to carry out their missionary work “in accordance with and not contrary to” the new statement of beliefs. In time, and under pressure to crack down on egalitarian elements within the mission board, Jerry Rankin would require the entire mission force to affirm the BFM 2000. Some would resign, others would sign with explanation, and others wholeheartedly affirmed the statement.

With the new mission paradigm in place, Rankin moved to elevate some of its key architects to positions of greater influence in the board. Curtis Sergeant, a missionary who had been serving in the “restricted access” country of China since 1993, was appointed to the associate vice presidency of global strategies.(14) Previously, Sergeant had already been conducting training sessions for missionary personnel, both at the Virginia Missionary Learning Center and on the field. Sergeant took his post at the Richmond headquarters on June 26, 2002, and became the one of the chief strategists and trainers for more than 5000 foreign missionaries serving in 185 countries and working with 1,923 different ethno-linguistic people groups.(15) Later that year, Sergeant was awarded a doctor of ministry degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for his research on church planting movements in Asia. His project report, entitled “A Model for Evaluating Applied Church-Planting Strategies Among Unreached People Groups,” was never placed in general circulation at the seminary’s library, and access to his project was restricted to those who had Sergeant’s written permission. For nearly a year, a seminal piece of research that buttressed the new church-planting strategy of the IMB was inaccessible and under-reviewed.(16) We shall return to a consideration of Sergeant’s research and its influence in strategic board policies later in this paper. For now, it is important to understand that (a) Southern Baptists had tightened its gender-qualification for pastoral offices, (b) the International Mission Board had required all overseas missionary personnel to sign the new statement and to conduct their mission work within its parameters, (c) new administrators at the IMB were enlisted and empowered to implement strategic shifts in missionary paradigms, and (d) the raw data behind those paradigms were closely guarded and persons wishing to familiarize themselves with the sociological analyses and doctrinal observations of the church-planting strategies were kept from doing so.


(8) See “FMB trustees approve restructure principles,” in Baptist Press, April 10, 1997.

(9) See “IMB trustees affirm agency’s vision, organization for 2001” in Baptist Press, September 9, 1997.

(10) While the executive minutes of the board’s trustee meetings are unavailable, this information has been checked in phone conversations over the past several years with board trustees. For more details on the properties expansion, see “IMB reviews ‘New Directions,’ breaks ground for MLC expansion,” in Baptist Press, May 24, 2000. It should also be noted that Rankin is not alone. Some of his chief critics, interestingly enough, are now famous for expanding their own private living quarters and maintaining them with denominational funds.

(11) Again, I have not personally reviewed the minutes of the trustee subcommittee investigation. In my personal correspondence with Jerry Rankin and in telephone conversations with two of those involved in the review and ongoing charges against him, I have satisfactorily confirmed my own suspicion that Rankin did nothing wrong. If he did, then he should have been fired. If men who had evidence of his wrongdoing refused to present it yet continue to repeat unsubstantiated rumors, then they should be rebuked. The fact that Rankin is still at the IMB, however, demonstrates that a majority of trustees were unconvinced that he had compromised his ability to lead the board. The fact that some continue to circulate such charges against Rankin — as in the case of a trustee calling Wade Burleson prior to his election to the IMB board and telling him that Rankin had “buried money” at the board — only reveals the degree to which small people with little else to do desire to discredit Rankin and either force his ouster or limit his influence.

(12) See “IMB trustees affirm ‘New Directions;’ policy focuses on world’s people groups,” in Baptist Press, July 18, 2000.

(13) Article VII of the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message reads: “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” (italics added).

(14) In my personal correspondence with Jerry Rankin, he has explained that Curtis Sergeant had little to no influence in the development of New Directions. While Sergeant may not have been directly involved in the development of the strategy, it is clear that his research was both consonant with and supplementary to the original plan. And while his dissertation was not published until 2001, any person familiar with doctoral research is aware that the year of publication is the final stage in the process, usually preceded by years of analysis, revision, and editing. Sergeant did not strangely appear on stage at the IMB in 2001, unknown and untested by those who appointed him. It seems that he was elevated because of his tremendous influence and effectiveness, though it is likely that Rankin was unfamiliar with some of the more questionable parts of Sergeant’s thought. Rankin neither supervised Sergeant’s research, nor was he availed of its contents until late 2003.

(15) See “IMB names Curtis Sergeant to strategy coordination post,” in Baptist Press, April 24, 2002.

(16) In personal conversations with the seminary librarian, Berry Driver, I learned that the project had bypassed the usual process for binding and cataloging. The work was never put in the seminary’s searchable database, and few knew of its existence. Only after it had been bound and archived was the librarian even made aware that it had become a part of the library’s holdings. The normal procedure for dissertations and D.Min projects required review and authorization by the dean of libraries.

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